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Let’s pray. O Lord, how can we keep our way pure? By guarding it according to Your Word. We seek You with our whole heart. Let us not wander from your commandments. Help us to store up Your Word in our hearts that we might not sin against You. We delight in Your testimonies. Help us now to meditate on Your precepts, turn our souls to the living God. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
You know that two weeks ago we canceled our Sunday services because of hurricane Florence. I’m told that was maybe the first time that church has ever been canceled for something other than snow or snow, [laughter] as you have, as we have down here, but many of you, I trust, were able to have a time of worship on your own or perhaps some of you tuned into the little Facebook live thing that I did. I was, I was loathe to cancel service for a couple of reasons. One, most importantly, just because it’s the Lord’s day and we want to meet, and how rare we do something like that, but in talking with other leaders from the church and hearing that almost every other church around town had canceled, we did the same, and I think it was a good decision.
But the other reason why I was so loathe to do so is by the Lord’s providence, this was His plan, you saw, I printed that preaching schedule a month before this ever happened and I was supposed to preach on Jesus walking on the water [laughter] for that Sunday, so you’re getting Jesus walking on the water this Sunday. It’s still quite a fitting passage, even if we’re not having the water up to our feet, and we praise God for that, for this Sunday.
So follow along as I read from John chapter 6, just a few verses, verses 16 through 21. John chapter 6, beginning at verse 16: “When evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat and started across the see to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. But He said to them, ‘It is I, do not be afraid.’ Then they were glad to take Him into the boat and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.”
Well, I don’t have to remind you of where you were probably two weeks ago. Everyone was watching the, the weather for the week leading up to that weekend. Everyone was buying a lifetime supply of water and bread, because if you’re locked inside for any period of time… I went to the grocery store and I said, and this was like Thursday or something, and I said “this is crazy” and the lady checking me out said “oh, it’s just, it’s just been nuts.” I said “yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said, “I’ve not been through this before,” and she said “apparently when the weather’s bad all you can do is eat.” [laughter] I said, “well, apparently.” Eat and drink water.
Not to make light of what happened, there was severe destruction in different parts of the state and we are taking up an offering for that very purpose at the end of the service, it was quite an event. Winds initially in excess over 100 miles an hour, storm surges over 10 feet, waves reported when it came ashore, waves out beyond the coast, dozens and dozens, scores of feet tall. Rainfall expectations that were 10 to 20 to 30 inches. We had over 10 inches in this area. The North Carolina Department of Transportation estimated that for several counties in North Carolina this was a once in a thousand year rain event. Once in a thousand year. You know when you have all of those, those plans which seem sort of annoying when you’re trying to build something or do something, it’s a flood plain and it’s a 500-year flood plain, it’s a 1000-year flood plain, and what are the odds? Well, that’s why you have them, I guess. It was a thousand year event.
And think about it. With all of our modern comforts and technological advances and we give thanks to God for all of that and how much less destructive these storms are given preparations and precautions and infrastructure, yet still when it comes to it, with all of our advances, all of our technology, we cannot change the weather, and we are still virtually powerless to stop water, when it keeps coming and coming and coming, as it did that weekend.
Hurricanes can be frightening, storms can be terrifying, water can be absolutely devastating. Just a simple drip in one little crevice in your roof down to your attic, down to your first floor, makes the water in and it just starts going in and doesn’t stop.
And yet, I promise you, and not just do I promise you, but the Word of God promises you, that the unmasked glory of Jesus is more powerful than any hurricane, more astounding than any storm, more terrifying than any near death experience, and as we see, at the same time more comforting than your mom or dad holding your hand in the middle of the night.
We see here a storm, a sea, and a savior. You’re familiar with the scene. It’s evening, darkness has come upon the disciples, and in fact there is probably a, a link here, a literary link to the darkness coming upon the disciples at the very time when Jesus is absent, at the absence of Jesus is darkness for the disciples. And you could trace out, especially in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that whenever Jesus isn’t around, whether He’s asleep in the boat or He’s not in the boat or He’s gone somewhere or He’s off into the garden praying, something bad is about to happen when Jesus isn’t around. They had got into the boat again and started to head back northwest to Capernaum. Remember, they were on the far side of the sea and that’s where Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.
In Mark’s account, it tells us that Jesus sent the disciples ahead of Him to the other side while He went up to the mountainside to pray. At various points in the Gospels, particularly in Mark’s account, we see that Jesus would retire to pray, and it happens at specific points. It happens in Mark’s Gospel on the day one of His ministry when the whole crowds are coming to Him, to be healed and want Him to stay and cast out demons and heal them and then here on the heels of the feeding of the five thousand when they want to come and make Him king by force, and then again at the end when He’s facing the cup of God’s wrath which He must drink down, He goes into the garden to pray.
Why? Not only to pray, but at those key moments where He’s facing a temptation to be a different kind of messiah. Maybe I can be the sort of messiah who just sets up shop and just heals people. That’s going to be popular. Maybe I can be the messiah who feeds five thousand and I become a king and I lead you out to victory. That’ll be fun. Maybe I’m the sort of messiah who doesn’t have to drink the cup of God’s wrath and die on a cross.
At each moment when He faces I think a moment of temptation, to be a different kind of messiah, to do this a different way, He retires and He prays and He sends the disciples ahead, probably established some kind of rendezvous point. And while they are in the sea, it becomes rough. The Sea of Galilee is 600 feet under sea level and as the wind would come across it would whip up storms quickly. We read that they had gone 25 or 30 stadia, that is 3 or 3-1/2 miles, or depending on the translation, 3 or 4 miles they had gone off into the middle of the lake. And Mark says the wind was against them. John calls it here “anemou megalou,” a mega wind, a strong wind.
Many of the disciples were from this area. They were seasoned fishermen. They had no doubt encountered rough seas many times before, but they were about to see something that they had never seen. And though this is very familiar story to many of us, I want you to notice five surprising things in this story. Five.
Number one. The first surprise is the most obvious. Jesus was walking on the water. This was clearly a miracle. Some liberal scholars try to say “well, hmm hmm, maybe He was, He was just, He found the sandbar that was getting out there.” Well, okay, then the ship would have run ashore if He’s just skipping along the sandbar, and besides, they knew the lake, they had been on it before, they know where they’re going. When people say “no, well, He’s just, He’s just walking along the shore and the boat had just hugged the shoreline.” Well, clearly that’s not the case, for it says that they had gone three or four miles. They are in the middle of the lake. This is a flat-out miracle. He is walking on, the Greek preposition epi, on the sea, verse 19. Not in it, not under it, not wading through it, but on it. He’s doing something normal human beings can’t do. You may run fast across a puddle, you may be able to ski barefoot, you may go out on a Jet Ski with Pastor Bernie, but we are not able to walk on water.
You know, there a reptile called the Jesus lizard. I learned about it watching Planet Earth a few years ago. It’s native to Mexico, Central and South America. It’s a basilisk and it runs on, it stands upright and it runs on two very large webbed feet and they get going so fast, I’m sure you can Google this and find some footage of it. They have flaps between their toes for buoyancy and they run so fast that they can walk on water. And when you watch it on Planet Earth, of course, they do it in slow motion and it just looks like “wow, I see why it’s the Jesus lizard,” just walking. What they don’t tell you is it can do it for about 10 feet. And they get going so, and that’s still impressive, more than you can do, but 10 or 15 feet and then the thing sinks back down. So even the Jesus lizard can only basically scamper for a few feet before it sinks. And no human being can do this.
This is amazing stuff. What Jesus is doing is unprecedented. So you understand that. We know this story. That’s the first surprise. The one that’s the most obvious, the miracle. He’s walking on the water.
Second surprise. The second surprise is that Jesus is coming near the boat. You see at the end of verse 17 He had not yet come to them, and then verse 19 they saw Jesus walking on the sea, coming near to the boat. Imagine their shock. One of the disciples says “there’s someone on the water.” Another disciple says “you mean in the water?” “No, I mean on the water. Someone. On the water.” “You mean something on the water, like a net, a fish, an oar, a paddle.” “No, someone is on the water and he’s coming toward us.”
That was surprising to the disciples because they were out to sea. You do not expect someone to be walking on water coming to you in a boat. We get that.
But think about this, and I hope that this isn’t, it’s spiritualizing perhaps, but I think it’s part of the lesson that we’re meant to draw here. It should be no less astounding to you today that Jesus still comes to you. What’s the miracle? The miracle is how can Jesus walk on water to get to us in the boat. No, it’s a much greater miracle. How does Jesus walk over our sin and our shame and our mess and get to us? Some of you know what it’s like to have that storm raging, to feel swamped by sin and suffering, to feel like you’re tossed at sea. And it’s true.
Again, I’m not saying this is the main point. It’s not some sort of allegory, and yet there’s a lesson here. Jesus doesn’t walk on the water just to say “ha ha, I can do tricks.” He’s teaching them something about Himself and about His care for the disciples. Some of you are just rowing, rowing, rowing, rowing, rowing, umm, and the wind is against you, and the storm is buffeting your little vessel and you wake up every day feeling like another storm. And you go to bed and it’s a storm. It can be a storm feeling of cancer, sadness, of grief or a loved one. It can be simply the storm of, of a mess and kids to cart around everywhere, or loneliness, there’s this, and you’re rowing, rowing, rowing, trying to get your vessel to the shore, thinking that it depends upon you.
But Jesus finds a way to get to us. If we will look for Him, if we will trust. You see that. He’s coming. It’s not too hard for Him to make His way to you.
And it’s a simple point, but it, it bears repeating because every other religious system in the world is basically you have a boat, try not to get any holes in it, and God gives you a paddle and if you are a good person, just do your best, and you might not be the best rower but just work real hard and you’re going to get that boat to shore. And people get to the end of their life and say “oh, he was such a good person,” “I just rowed my way.”
And then Christianity says no, you don’t. The boat’s gonna sink, you’re going to perish, you’re lost at sea, you’re trapped, the wind is against you no matter how hard you row, you won’t get there. Unless you have a savior who can get to you.
Psalm 77: “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you they were afraid. Indeed, the deep trembled. Your way was through the sea, Your path through the great waters, yet Your footprints were unseen.”
God made His way.
So that’s the second surprise. It’s not just He’s walking on the water, but He’s coming to us.
Here’s the third thing I want you to notice. It’s at the end of verse 19. “When they had rowed about three or four miles they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat,” and then notice this: “And they were frightened.”
This is a remarkable story, but in this whole remarkable story, this is what I find most shocking. Note this: The disciples, at least we read here in John’s account, the disciples were only afraid after they saw Jesus. Now they may have been afraid; there’s a sea, but they were experienced fishermen. It says once they see Him coming to them, now things have gone from a bit of panic to absolutely shocking, awful, fearful, because a storm I can understand. We’ve been here, we’ve seen wind, we’ve seen waves, we know what to do, just like the people that, that we saw, you know, some people who didn’t evacuate and stayed in their homes. You know, we’ve been through hurricanes before. We know what the drill is.
Some of the pastors were passing around this video of a guy without a shirt on there somewhere on the beach, Myrtle Beach maybe, with an American flag, just rrrrr, because it’s America and we have the flag and my shirt’s off and the hurricane come at me. [laughter] He’s just there; I guess he does this every time a hurricane comes. Some of us feel like yeah, I know, I know what to do with storms.
But you don’t know what to do with someone walking on the water. They’ve seen crazy stuff from Jesus. Remember, they just saw the feeding of the five thousand, but now this is a jaw dropper. They would have been shocked if Jesus was swimming toward them. “What are you doing in the storm?” “Just been working, just I’m coming, I’m coming.” That would have been surprising. But He’s walking. And notice this, this is not a, it’s Jesus. You rock, Jesus. This is a “are you kidding me? Are you serious? What is going on?”
I remember seeing a while back, you know, these different videos that go viral and there was a video of a coach at the half-time of some game or something and he’s, he’s blindfolded and then he, you know, it’s a spin around at half-court around a bat and then they give him a basketball and he this a half-court shot, and the crowd just comes down and goes nuts. I mean, he’s blindfolded first of all, it’s a half-court shot, he’s been spinning around dizzy, and then he heaves the thing up and it goes in. Absolutely pandemonium, we can’t believe it. That, that’s one kind of astonishment. That’s one kind of shock. Now if you were watching the video and the coach as everyone comes down just begins to sort of float up to the rafters and then walk upside down on the roof and then float down through the hoop to the bottom, now you have a whole different kind of astonishment. And the place would go from pandemonium to silence. What just happened?
The disciples are wondering what, what is this? In Mark’s Gospel it says they thought it was a ghost, phantasma, phantom. But even after they know that it’s Jesus, it says in Mark 6 “they were utterly astounded.” So it’s initially what is this, it’s a ghost that’s coming toward us, but even when He gets there, in Mark’s Gospel you could translate it over literally as “and greatly, abundantly in themselves they were amazed.”
Okay, the loaves and the fishes, that was confusing because they just, I just kept eating and breaking off and it never went out. I’m still, my mind is blown by that. They, they’ve seen, you know, people healed. The water into wine. They don’t have a category for it, but here it is: Walking on the water.
And so they are more afraid after they see Jesus then they are simply being in the storm.
So here’s my question. When is the last time you, when is the last time I, when’s the last time you have stood face-to-face with the glory and the majesty and the power of the Lord Jesus Christ and trembled? Has that ever happened? Is it possible you’ve known Jesus for your whole life and it’s always sort of been the answer to a math problem. Well, I have sin, I want to go to heaven, what’s the missing variable? Jesus. I like Him, I’m pro Jesus, He helps me, I need by Bible, He died on the cross. Have you ever stood face-to-face, have you ever had an encounter with Christ through the Word, through the preaching of the Word, through singing of a hymn, and you’ve, you’ve gotten something experientially of the glory and the power and the unrivaled majesty of Christ, and you trembled.
This is the point where the pastor puts in the obligatory reference to Aslan—he’s not a safe lion, he’s not a tame lion.
For many people, Jesus is nothing but a nice guy who does neat tricks. Even for church goers, who know enough to know that yes, Jesus is the son of God, do we really know who He is and what He’s like? Have we ever trembled? Have we ever seen Him and feared?
That was surprising, that they were more afraid after they saw Jesus than before they saw Jesus.
Here’s the fourth surprise. It’s what Jesus says to the disciples. What He says is that the same time comforting and discombobulating. On one level what Jesus says is incredibly simple. Look at what He says there in verse 20: “It is I, do not be afraid.” On one level it is amazingly comforting and simple. This is how God approaches fearful people in the Bible. He doesn’t go on an introspective idol hunt. There’s a place for, you know, identifying idols in our life, but He doesn’t say “okay, now let’s, let’s think for a moment, what lie you’re believing and what truth you’re not believing, and where the idols are.” He comes to you in the midst of your fear and anxiety and worry and terror and He simply says “I’m here, I’m with you.” This is exactly how a parent would speak to a child in the middle of the night; they wake up, they’re crying, “mom, dad, I had a scary dream.”
What happens when your, when your kid comes to you with a scary dream? Do you give them a lesson on the illusory nature of dreams? Do you give them a dissertation on all the ways they’re not trusting God at this moment? You may be afraid of this dream, but right now there’s really nothing to be afraid of. No, what do you do? If they come over… Now, if they’ve done it, you know, I’m talking about the non-manipulative children who come in with the scary dream [laughter]. The real terror, and they come and they’re crying “mommy, daddy, I had a scary dream.” You grab their hand, you whisper in their ear, “it’s okay, mommy’s here, it’s okay, daddy’s here,” or daddy might say “it’s okay, mommy’s over there.” [laughter]
But you grab their hand and you simply reassure them of that most fundamental truth, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m with you.” Some of you need to hear Christ say that to you this morning. In the midst of all that is bothersome, all the anxiety, all that’s fearful, all that dread, just you need the simple words of Jesus sometimes. The simple are sometimes the most profound theological lessons, come in the simplest words, just Jesus to say “It’s I. Don’t be afraid.”
So the question is do we fear Christ or not? This, this is really at the heart of the whole Christian life. Perfect love casts out fear. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Well, which is it? It’s, it’s both. We should fear the Lord, but we should not be afraid. Or you could put it this way: As Christians, we fear the Lord but it is a fear that draws us near. That’s, that’s the difference. It’s a fear that draws us near. Not the terror, not the afraid, not the I’ve run away from, the fear that draws us near. There’s a mystery to it, that it’s, it’s not safe, it’s not tame, that you want to see it, at an appropriate level. I mean, it’s sort of like the proverbial going to see the edge of the Grand Canyon. There’s a sense of awe there, there’s a sense of respect there. You don’t just, you know, go and start doing gymnastics on the rim of the Grand Canyon, but there’s something that you do want to see it. You do want to look appropriately. You have all the cautions, there’s an awe, there’s a respect, there’s a fear, and there’s an amazement and a wonder. This fear draws us near.
So on one level what Jesus is saying is incredibly simple. He’s saying I’m here, it’s okay.
But there’s another level. There’s another level at which Jesus is speaking and He’s saying something incredibly profound. Here, you see that phrase? It is I. Here’s what it is in the Greek: “Ego eimi,” ego eimi. That’s a perfectly fine translation; it’s how you say “it is I.” But those are also the exact words used to translate the Hebrew in Exodus 3:14 when Moses says what is your name? Who should I say sent me? And Yahweh says “Ego eimi,” ego eimi ho on, I am who I am.
And remember, I, when we looked at the feeding of the five thousand we saw all of the Exodus sort of motif, all of the ways in which this is paralleling with Moses; that you have going up onto a mountain to receive instruction, you have people divided into camps, organized by 50s and 10s, just like Moses would do. You have bread coming from heaven. And now you have, just like with Moses, a revelation of the divine character.
Jesus not only walks where God walks, He talks like God talks. Walking on the water, ego eimi.
Even more clearly we’ll see it in John 8:58 when Jesus says “before Abraham was,” same Greek expression, “ego eimi.” I am.
You see the point of the miracles is not the miracles. The point of the healing is not the healing. The point of the exorcism is not the exorcism. The point of His teaching is not ultimately to make us just live a certain way, just follow the Jesus way and be better folks. The point behind all the other points is we might know who Jesus is. And so when He comes and He says “I’m here, don’t be afraid,” He’s doing more than any mom or dad could ever do in the middle of the night, because He is the I am.
Which brings us to one final surprise. The disciples are ready to welcome Jesus into the boat but not yet into their hearts. Keep your finger there in John 6 and I want you to turn over to Mark chapter 6, the parallel account which I have referred to several times, and just look there at Mark chapter 6, verse 51. Same story, take heart, it is I, do not be afraid. Verse 51: “And He got into the boat with them and the wind ceased and they were utterly astounded for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
You put John’s account together, you put Mark’s account together, you have a remarkable juxtaposition. On the one hand, they are very glad to have Him in the boat. We read that in Mark 6:21—”Then they were glad to take him in the boat.” Well, yeah, why not? We got a storm, we got a sea, you’re walking on the water, we’re wet, you’re not wet, but come in here.” Of course they would be glad. And they’re glad because the storm, apparently, calms immediately, and before they know it they’ve already reached their destination, so who wouldn’t be glad to have this Jesus in their boat?
But Mark’s Gospel gives us that other detail, that even though they welcomed Him in the boat they did not understand about the loaves but their hearts were hardened. Glad to have you in the boat, not yet ready to have You in our hearts.
Do you see how this is tracking with the theme that we’ve seen in John’s Gospel so many times already? Like in Jerusalem where the people say “whoa, you’re doing miracles” and it says Jesus did not entrust Himself to them because He knew what was in them. Or later we see it with the woman at the well and the crowds that are coming. Jesus understands they want a fix-it Jesus, not a faith in Jesus. Who doesn’t want a fix-it Jesus? Who doesn’t want a Jesus that helps us feel better, better than ibuprofen, better than Tylenol? Who doesn’t want a Jesus you’re sick, you get better! You’re sad, you get happy! You have storms, they stop! This is great! I’ve got a Jesus, He’s like a doctor, He’s a weatherman who changes the weather, He, uh, He just makes problems go away. Yeah, I’ll take that Jesus!
But Mark says their hearts were hardened about the loaves. We don’t know exactly all that this entailed, but apparently there was something that, that even though they had seen the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, and there may have been twenty thousand people there, yet they, they had not yet put two and two together. They were still maybe sort of rationalizing. You know, maybe, maybe the bread was bigger than it looked. Maybe the fish… Maybe I didn’t count the fish right. Um, maybe somebody else brought and maybe we didn’t see it. Maybe, maybe up His sleeve… I, I, I don’t know. Or you know, maybe it was a miracle, just like Elisha’s day there was a miracle, but He’s not the One, is he? Is he? He’s not the One, right?
Their hearts had not yet fully opened to the reality of who He was. Very happy to have a fix-it Jesus, not yet ready for a faith in Jesus.
You know, have you ever found yourself doing this? You pray for miracles, and it’s good to pray for miracles. Sometimes I say you don’t believe in miracles? Then how do you explain that our guinea pig is still alive, but that’s another matter. Real miracles. You want miracles of healing, you want miracles of provision. God still does miracles. Pray for miracles.
But you ever find yourself saying “if only, if only I could see a miracle. I mean, look it, if only I could see that miracle,” or maybe you think it about someone you love who doesn’t follow Jesus, maybe you’re thinking about somebody you know who’s here this morning. “If she could just see a miracle, Lord. If You would just heal her daughter. If they could just have this amazing answer to prayer, just a miracle right in front of them, I know that their whole family would come to Christ.”
How many miracles did they see in the Gospels? And how many people came to faith in Christ just like that? Jesus, in fact, will says “woe to you, Bethsaida, woe to you, Chorazin. If the things that happened among you had happened in Sodom and Gomorrah, they would have repented. You saw miracles and you still didn’t get it.”
So let us not foolishly think that if we could just see miracles, or our friends could just see miracles, they would just immediately drop to their knees, “you’re God, Jesus, I love you, the Bible’s true, I’m at church from here on out.”
No, faith is not the inevitable result of knowing about Jesus or even seeing the power of Jesus. Faith is not the automatic result of witnessing a miracle or hearing the truth. Faith is a gift of God by the sovereign work of the Spirit. There are all sorts of people who see and do not believe. People here in the Gospels who heard and did not believe. People who witnessed miracle after miracle and yet did not believe. You would think, right, disciples? It’s pretty obvious!
We wouldn’t have been any different.
This doesn’t mean evidence is pointless or reasoning is fruitless. It certainly doesn’t mean speaking the Word of God is worthless or praying for miracles is wrong. It means God must work through the words so that the sheep will hear His voice. Even after all of this, welcome Him into the boat, not yet ready to welcome Him into their hearts.
No preacher can make you believe. No pastor can make you come to church. We can put in a good effort. We can be prayerful and thoughtful, but God must give you faith. And you know that, parents? Grandparents? You cannot make your kids believe. You can at a certain age make them go to church. You can for a time make them follow your rules and you should. But you cannot make them. And they may see things and you say “how could you not see what I see?” Well, maybe they’re a lot like the disciples. Not yet ready to see all that they needed to see. God must give the gift of faith.
And so I want you to just think as we close. Can you see, can you really see the One who is walking towards you in the storm? Are you ready to understand about the loaves and the fishes? Are you ready to understand who is the ego eimi, the I am? Are you simply impressed with Jesus? Or have you put your unequivocal trust in Jesus?
It’s not hard to be impressed. There’s an eternal difference to really putting your trust.
Do you see the storm? Do you feel the waves? Are you ready to bring Him into your boat, if that gets you to the shore? If it makes the storm cease?
And if you’re ready to bring Him into the boat, are you ready to open up your heart as well?
Let’s pray. Our gracious heavenly Father, we know that You have hidden these things from the impressive people in the world and you have revealed them to us as like little children. We pray once again you would do that miracle, that most astounding miracle, the miracle of new birth in the hearts of your people here and perhaps someone in this room has been all too happy to have a fix-it Jesus and not a faith in Jesus. Perhaps someone here has been rowing hard, hard, hard to the shore, never looking up to see if Jesus might be walking towards us. Perhaps someone here has had a lifetime of liking Jesus but never really knowing Jesus, never trembling at the I am. So would you do a work, Father, that You can only do by Your Spirit working through Your Word, and lead us to Christ, as He has made His way to us. We pray all of this in His name. Amen.